Reflections on Advancing Women in Higher Education

January 25, 2016

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ACE this month launched the Moving the Needle: Advancing Women in Higher Education Leadership initiative, a national campaign that asks college and university presidents to commit to helping achieve the goal that by 2030, half of U.S. college and university chief executives are women. 

In the current edition of The Presidency, ACE’s Lynn M. Gangone looks at women’s advancement in higher education leadership in recent years—and the prospects for the future. The article is posted in its entirety below. Also see our new infobrief on women in higher education, which examines issues like tenure, compensation and representation in high-ranking leadership positions.

In the book Women and Leadership in Higher Education (2014), I was the lead author of the introductory chapter, titled “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in Academia and Beyond.” This chapter quantifies the progress of women in higher education, as well as the qualitative elements that either advance or hinder women’s progress toward fair and equitable presence in higher education senior leadership.

It is no secret that the number of women in the “C-suite” remains significantly small given the effort made to equitably educate women. Yes, there has been progress, and that progress has been hard won. There’s an anecdote used to describe the qualitative elements of success for senior-level women in any sector: They more than likely attended a girl’s high school or women’s college, were a Girl Scout, and played competitive sports.

I look at these three experiences as ways that women learn self-efficacy, practice healthy competition with others (as opposed to each other), and develop groundedness in body, mind, and spirit. As I unpack this anecdote, I recognize that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a critical component of women’s progress, particularly when one looks at gains women have made in specific academic disciplines, as well as increases in women’s sports participation.

In this past academic year, more that 42 percent of high school athletes were female—an all-time high. As I prepare to go back to my high school to celebrate the 1975 girls softball team’s induction into the town’s athletic hall of fame, I thank Title IX for allowing me and my teammates the opportunity to play softball, tennis, field hockey, basketball, and other sports, which have fortified me and my high school teammates, as well as created the capacity for us to serve our respective sectors as leaders.

Wall Street Journal reporter Rachel Bachman notes in her piece in her “Women’s Sports Win Over America” that “against this increasingly athletic backdrop, two women recently became the first to graduate from the U.S. Army’s grueling 61-day Ranger school. It should be no surprise that one was a high-school soccer star and the other a long- distance runner.” While none of us is a formal Army Ranger, I and others have had to run the marathon of leadership, fortified at times only by our resiliency and determination as the metaphoric bullets fly around us. For women, leadership is still a Ranger-like activity.

Bachman notes that “women’s sports still command a fraction of media coverage, earnings, and audiences of men’s contests.” This observation can be applied across any nonprofit, corporate, or public sector—women are still underrepresented, underpaid, and commanding a fraction of the leadership space. The numbers tell the story, as I and others have noted in various studies on women’s advancement.

In “Most Nations Miss a Goal for Women in Leadership,” New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta noted that despite the 30 percent target for female participation set by the United Nations in 1995, only 22 percent of the world’s lawmakers are women, and in the United Nations General Assembly’s 193 member nations, only 10 heads of state are women. In the United States, higher education typically leads the way with the highest number of CEOs who are women—26 percent, according to the latest comprehensive data available, with 17 percent of those being women of color. Forthcoming data updates from ACE researchers indicate that the numbers for women faculty also show little improvement.

But I believe that it’s more than numbers and pipelines and Title IX that will get us to our goal. I believe that culture and systems still hinder the progress of women; I spoke about this in a TEDxMileHigh talk and with #ShattertheIce. Organizations such as Catalyst, with its #DistrupttheDefault initiative, note the influence of culture and systems as well, calling on women and men to think, speak, and act to create the bold moves that will forge meaningful change for women.

At ACE, we have a historic commitment to the advancement of women, dating back to the 1930s. ACE continues to support women’s advancement through state networks, regional and national leader- ship development forums, and Moving the Needle (MTN). MTN has as its goal parity for women in the college and university presidency by 2030 and seeks to create the systemic change we believe is essential to harnessing the power of women’s leadership. Join us in this call to action in our sector, so that meaningful change for women and men can be achieved in higher education. Let’s continue to lead the way for women’s advancement.


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